Environmental lawyer David Boyd marvels at the love so many people show for their pets.
But in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, the UBC associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability also pointed out that many don’t recognize the unbelievably negative impact that human beings are having through their day-to-day activities on animals that aren’t their pets.
It’s something he’s trying to bring to public attention in his new book, The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World.
“In the course of my work, I’m familiar with the fact that we’re causing the sixth mass extinction in the four-and-a-half-billion-year history of the Earth,” Boyd said. “I also learned that we kill about 100 billion animals annually—mostly so that we can eat them but also for clothing, entertainment, and research.”
In advance of writing the book, he ventured on a journey through legal systems and constitutions in dozens of countries to determine the extent of nature’s legal rights in the face of this “biological meltdown”. He discovered how the legal environment is rapidly evolving in several countries to the point where animals and even rivers and national parks are obtaining legal rights.
“I came across a new constitution that Ecuador has created in which they actually included a whole section on the rights of what they call Pachamama, or Mother Earth,” Boyd said. “To my lawyer’s mind, this was a mind-blowing development because, certainly, it was unprecedented in the annals of constitutional law. It seemed to be one of those potentially game-changing ideas that transforms not only the legal system but our entire culture in terms of how we perceive ourselves vis-à-vis the rest of the world and how we behave vis-à-vis the rest of the world.”
He noted that scientific understanding of intelligent creatures has obliterated the arguments of European Enlightenment philosophers—such as René Descartes and Immanuel Kant—that animals were mere automatons. He said that these ideas permeated laws in the western industrialized world.
“For hundreds of years, the legal status of animals has been the same as a table or a spoon or a chair,” Boyd stated. “Animals have been considered a thing.”
This is what justified depriving them of their liberty, keeping them in cages, and killing them wantonly. In the 1960s, this view began to change with Jane Goodall’s pioneering research on chimpanzees. She demonstrated that they have close and complex relationships and that they even utilize tools to pull termites from holes.
“We now recognize that a far broader range of animals than we previously imagined are intelligent, sentient beings, right down to octopuses and ants,” Boyd said. “That scientific evidence is being acknowledged and reflected in changes in Quebec’s law. But I think the rest of Canada really lags behind in a legal sense because there are no examples of animals really being granted rights by either legislatures or courts.”
This isn’t the case in other countries. He reports in The Rights of Nature that a court in Argentina ruled that an orangutan was a “nonhuman person” whose rights included “avoiding suffering from being in captivity”.
In New Zealand, laws have been passed recognizing that a river and a national park have “the rights of a person”.
“We’re not talking about human rights,” Boyd emphasized. “Human rights are for humans. What we’re talking about are the rights of a legal person—and a legal person is simply a designation created by our laws to recognize that some kind of entity should have legally protected rights.”
In other words, the river in New Zealand doesn’t have human rights—it has the rights of a river. “So the river does not have the right to vote but the river has the right to flow freely and to not be polluted and to have its natural complement of species living in it, et cetera,” he explained.
In New Zealand, these rights also ensure that there are legal guardians appointed to fight to maintain these rights. India is another country that has taken impressive steps to imbue nature with legal rights, according to Boyd.
So could this have an impact in Canada? He said that the Supreme Court of Canada has referenced Indian cases regarding the precautionary principle. This places the burden of proof on those who seek to introduce chemicals and other potentially harmful products into the environment. And the New Zealand laws conferring rights on a river and a national park have been cited in the highest courts in India and Colombia.
“The process of change in today’s world is constantly accelerating,” Boyd said, “so I think these are ideas that have transformative potential and are highly likely to come to Canada sooner than anyone previously anticipated.”
In the meantime, he said that more than three dozen cities in the United States have passed bylaws recognizing that nature has certain rights. He has been in discussions with Indigenous people in Canada about this concept and how it’s playing out in New Zealand.
“We’re going to see Indigenous people in Canada saying ‘look, we have a different world view; we have different legal systems. Our legal systems are premised on a set of reciprocal rights and responsibilities not just with other humans, but with nature writ large,’ ” Boyd said.
A legal scholar named Christopher Stone advanced this idea in the United States, raising the provocative question over whether trees have legal standing in the court to oppose a ski resort that was once proposed by Walt Disney in rural California.
To Boyd, it’s another example of how some lawyers are pushing the boundaries regarding the rights of nature.
“We’re not aware of any other planet in the universe where physics and chemistry gave birth to biology in the way that has transpired here on Earth,” he said. “Although we like to think of ourselves as separate and superior, we’re actually related to every animal on this planet. We share DNA with every animal species on the planet.”